The Conservative Myth of a Social Safety Net Built on Charity

The right yearns for an era when churches and local organizations took care of society's weakest—an era that never existed and can't exist today.
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Ideology is as much about understanding the past as shaping the future. And conservatives tell themselves a story, a fairy tale really, about the past, about the way the world was and can be again under Republican policies. This story is about the way people were able to insure themselves against the risks inherent in modern life. Back before the Great Society, before the New Deal, and even before the Progressive Era, things were better. Before government took on the role of providing social insurance, individuals and private charity did everything needed to insure people against the hardships of life; given the chance, they could do it again.

This vision has always been implicit in the conservative ascendancy. It existed in the 1980s, when President Reagan announced, “The size of the federal budget is not an appropriate barometer of social conscience or charitable concern,” and called for voluntarism to fill in the yawning gaps in the social safety net. It was made explicit in the 1990s, notably through Marvin Olasky’s The Tragedy of American Compassion, a treatise hailed by the likes of Newt Gingrich and William Bennett, which argued that a purely private nineteenth-century system of charitable and voluntary organizations did a better job providing for the common good than the twentieth-century welfare state. This idea is also the basis of Paul Ryan’s budget, which seeks to devolve and shrink the federal government at a rapid pace, lest the safety net turn “into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” It’s what Utah Senator Mike Lee references when he says that the “alternative to big government is not small government” but instead “a voluntary civil society.” As conservatives face the possibility of a permanent Democratic majority fueled by changing demographics, they understand that time is running out on their cherished project to dismantle the federal welfare state.

But this conservative vision of social insurance is wrong. It’s incorrect as a matter of history; it ignores the complex interaction between public and private social insurance that has always existed in the United States. It completely misses why the old system collapsed and why a new one was put in its place. It fails to understand how the Great Recession displayed the welfare state at its most necessary and that a voluntary system would have failed under the same circumstances. Most importantly, it points us in the wrong direction. The last 30 years have seen effort after effort to try and push the policy agenda away from the state’s capabilities and toward private mechanisms for mitigating the risks we face in the world. This effort is exhausted, and future endeavors will require a greater, not lesser, role for the public.

Beyond the need to deflate the imaginary landscape of the contemporary right, there’s also a need for liberals to reform their project. Liberals need to reclaim the public. Liberals need to be able to articulate that the welfare state succeeded in exactly the ways that the private insurance system failed in the Great Depression. Patchy and spotty as it is, today’s welfare state backstopped the economy during the Great Recession, and is still capable of providing broad security for the American people.

It also requires liberals to argue for their own definition of charity, based on the equality that can thrive when the public manages the risks we face, rather than the inequality that’s bred by a private form of dependency. As President Truman said in a 1946 radio address to kick off the annual fundraising campaign of the Community Chest, the predecessor to today’s United Way:

I like the campaign slogan this year: Everybody Gives, Everybody Benefits. It marks a significant change in our thinking about the word “charity.” Today our contributions to the Community Chest are not alms given by the wealthy few to the poor. This Government, through its public welfare program, has long since accepted its responsibility to see that no citizen need face hunger, unemployment, or a destitute old age. The word “charity” has regained its old, true meaning—that of good will toward one’s fellowman; of brotherhood, of mutual help, of love.

The state does many things, but this essay will focus specifically on its role in providing social insurance against the risks we face. Specifically, we’ll look at what the progressive economist and actuary I.M. Rubinow described in 1934 as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: “accident, illness, old age, loss of a job. These are the four horsemen that ride roughshod over lives and fortunes of millions of wage workers of every modern industrial community.” These were the same evils that Truman singled out in his speech. And these are the ills that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food assistance, and our other public systems of social insurance set out to combat in the New Deal and Great Society.

Over the past 30 years the public role in social insurance has taken a backseat to the idea that private institutions will expand to cover these risks. Yet our current system of workplace private insurance is rapidly falling apart. In its wake, we’ll need to make a choice between an expanded role for the state or a fantasy of voluntary protection instead. We need to understand why this voluntary system didn’t work in the first place to make the case for the state’s role in fighting the Four Horsemen.

Social Insurance before the Great Depression

One problem with the conservative vision of charity is that it assumes the government hasn’t been playing a role in the management of risk and social insurance from the beginning. It imagines that there is some golden period to return to, free from any and all government interference. As Senator Lee has said, “From our very Founding, we not only fought a war on poverty—we were winning.” How did we do it? According to Lee, it was with our “voluntary civil society.” We started losing only when the government got involved.

This was never the case, and a significant amount of research has been done over the past several decades to overturn the myth of a stateless nineteenth century and to rediscover the lost role of the state in the pre-New Deal world.

The government’s footprint has always grown alongside the rest of society. The public post office helped unite the national civil society Alexis de Tocqueville found and celebrated in his travels throughout the United States. From tariff walls to the continental railroad system to the educated workforce coming out of land-grant schools, the budding industrial power of the United States was always joined with the growth of the government. The government played a major role throughout the nineteenth century in providing disaster relief in the aftermath of fires, floods, storms, droughts, famine, and more.

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Mike Konczal is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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